Explanation for sleep paralysis

The informant is California-born Chinese American. Her parents were born and raised in China, therefore she practices Chinese tradition and values at home. She is familiar with Chinese stories and folklores because her mom told her a lot about those.  She is currently a business student at USC.

Informant: “In Chinese, sleep paralysis is called “鬼壓床 (gui ya chung)” which literally translates into “a ghost pressing on your body.” Chinese folklore says sleep paralysis happens when a ghost, usually ghost of an unmarried women, presses down on your chest. You can’t move, while your mind is awake. You can see, smell, or hear the terrifying intruder, but you are powerless to do anything about it. In China ghosts are interpreted as those who bear large grudge, and therefore can’t go to afterlife because the resentment is too big.  Thus, Chinese people see ghosts as malicious. That’s what makes the experience of sleep paralysis so terrifying.”

“I first had it when I was in 7th grade. I remember hearing about it from my cousin and the mass media. So when I anxiously woke up, I could know right away that I was under sleep paralysis. As I heard, I couldn’t move as if my body was fettered to something. I wanted to scream for help, but my voice didn’t come out. I could hear my heart beating that sounded like footsteps. I didn’t open my eyes, because I was so scared I would see a ghost. I decided to ignore everything and go to sleep. It wasn’t easy because it was quite the mental game trying to remain calm. Eventually, I just fell back asleep.”

“I experienced it two or three more times after that. All those times I kept my eyes shut, so I didn’t see any ghosts. However there was this one time I heard someone breathing, and it was clearly not me, because I stopped breathing to check if it’s me. Even by saying this I am getting goosebumps, haha. It was hard to say I was dreaming, because my senses were pretty awaken. I say biological explanations can not explain every parts of sleep paralysis. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I clearly know my experience was not fake. So my conclusion is, I guess I do lean towards this folkloric explanation of sleep paralysis.”

Scientists explain sleep paralysis in terms of sleep cycles, REM cycles, and consider it as a simple biological occurrence. It might be purely biological, but how are the terrifying existences going to be explained? Folklores of demonic figures during sleep paralysis is found everywhere on earth. I think defining all those experiences simply as ‘hallucinations’ is too restricting. However, the interesting point isn’t on whether ghostly explanations are true. It’s on how sleep paralysis have been culturally interpreted by many different groups.